Garmin Edge 820 review: the cycling aid you’ll want to hurl off a mountain
Many cyclists have a love-hate relationship with their Garmin GPS navigation devices. Love, because they allow them to ride complex routes in unknown territory while collecting data about distance and speed, plus geekier pro metrics such as cadence and power with accessories. The hate sets in when they don’t behave as they’re supposed to.
I think I’ve sworn at my Garmin far more than any other device, which considering the relatively small amount of time I spend using it compared to a smartphone or laptop makes it an impressive obscenity magnet.
They are prone to freezing mid-ride, failing to collect your ride data and in general doing all sorts of random things. Some of these issues can be put down to user error or loading buggy routes, but when you’re 50 miles from home, up a mountain and/or the rain is biblical the Garmin takes the blame.
So when Garmin announces a new model, cyclists vacuum up the reviews hoping to find out that this could be The One, the Garmin to end all Garmins, the Garmin that never crashes and doesn’t send you five miles up 7% gradient only to beep and instruct you to “Make a U-turn”. Could its latest model the Edge 820 be that elusive Garmin?
After owning the 810 for a couple of years, it has liberated my road cycling. With the help of Strava you can plan routes and ride solo for 100km or more without recourse to check your phone or paper map and without making a wrong turning.
Routes planned directly on the 810 and 820 are another story, sending you down unpaved roads, rocky bridlepaths and midnight canal paths.
Is it faulty, or just terrible?
Sadly my high expectations for the 820 were immediately dashed. The first 820 I tried performed so erratically that I returned it because I thought it was a faulty unit. The touchscreen was so sensitive that it was possible to activate it without touching it at all, which meant judging the right amount of touch required to get it to do what you wanted was tricky and often required several attempted touches to achieve the most mundane of actions.
Moreover, the battery level indicator on the unit was unreliable, claiming 100% battery after a 160 km ride. And then there was the pre-planned route navigation that would only give text-based prompts. When approaching a junction the 810, by contrast, displays a map showing the route through it – this is particularly useful at anything more complex than a crossroads.
The 810 gives clear directions, sometimes the 820 doesn’t bother
I quickly discovered I wasn’t alone in having issues with the 820. A colleague who’d bought one described himself as wanting to throw it from the side of a mountain on more than one occasion.
He said: “Trying to use it while moving is almost impossible with gloves on, due to the poor touchscreen and multiple stab attempts at the screen required. It’s utterly useless when the screen is wet, irrespective of touchscreen sensitivity. It changes data fields with rain droplets (or sweat when on the turbo).”
At this point I looked at some of the other reviews online. If the screen was that bad surely the cycling press would written about it. Velonews said “The touchscreen worked flawlessly, even coated in rainwater” and Road.cc said it used special touchscreen gloves in order to operate it but didn’t seem to think this inconvenient.
The grandaddy for reviewing fitness tracking devices (yes, there is one) is called DC Rainmaker. At present Mr Rainmaker has only published a “Hands on” review which contains his “preliminary thoughts” after using the 820 for a “short bit”. Nevertheless, “in case you were wondering about that touchscreen – it works just fine in rain or with gloves” he writes.
However, a number of commenters on DC’s piece had a different experience of the screen. Changren Y said “I can activate the touchscreen on mine without physically touching it”, while JZ said that they experienced “a serious sensitivity issue with the screen”, and Jeremy said he “found the touch interface frustrating and inaccurate some (not all) of the time”.
User reviews on popular online cycle store Wiggle make similar points. Currently there are 12 reviews, three of which are five star verdicts – however one is written by a Wiggle staff member.
Big step back
While I was waiting for a replacement 820, I discovered that the map prompts feature had been dropped from the 820, which is bit like a car satnav only displaying text instructions – would you consider that an improvement?
Garmin Edge 820 review map Photograph: Ian Tucker for the Observer
The text instructions are OK when you know roughly where you going already – maybe when you’re re-tracing a familiar route – but when riding a new course they are often not reliable enough.
This is because many roads have two names – such as “High Street” and something less generic; many roundabouts have phantom exits; main roads sometimes have a number not a name; many junctions aren’t neat right angles, they are more slalom-like – all these situations can confuse text-driven instructions.
You can flip to map view manually, but taking a hand off the bars at speed, trying to brake and/or when approaching other traffic is dangerous and, as we’ve established, the 820’s touchscreen is well, touchy, so this action might not perform as expected.
So on a 160km ride around Kent I found leaving the unit on map view the entire time was the only way to avoid missing a turning. You can customise the map screen to include two or three bits of additional data, such as speed, distance or time of day – but if you are hungry for metrics such as your heart rate, power or estimated time of arrival, you’ll have to swipe the unpredictable screen.
A replacement 820 with updated software promised to fix the issues, but I quickly found stroking or dabbing at the screen with a covered digit had no effect whatsoever. It meant the screen was stuck on map view until I bothered to stop and remove my gloves. After I while I found that if I licked my gloved finger the moisture was enough to fool the screen into responding.
Although it has issues with some of the basics of navigation and recording, the 820 does include some fancy new features. The main one is the ability to Group Track: if you are with other riders with compatible Garmin devices it enables you to see their position on your screen using your phone as a data connection.
While this is interesting if you’re riding in a group, it’s a bit overkill and is limited to the 820, so everyone else is out of luck. You’re probably better off swapping phone numbers or setting up a WhatsApp group before a ride.
The 820 also features Incident Detection. Meaning that if it feels you have been involved in a crash it will automatically text a mobile number of your choice.
Unreliable at best
Fancy features just can’t override the fact that the 820 is poor at navigating. About 10% of the time, the 820 just failed to offer a prompt, meaning that you sailed straight past a turning until the unit beeped “Off course” – whereupon you’d have to guess which exit you’d missed.
The battery life of the 820 is an improvement over the 810 though. Despite displaying the map page for most of the ride, I finished the 160km Kent expedition with 23% battery to spare, albeit without any ANT+ accessories such as heart monitors hooked up. I feel confident it would make a 200km route even connected to a smartphone via Bluetooth.
The Garmin Edge 820 costs £369. For comparison, the Wahoo Elemt costs £250 and the Garmin Edge 1000 costs under £400.
I’ve been using the 820 for around five months. When I’ve been riding in a group its been fine, it always records, the battery life is good and it only crashes occasionally. However, when leading a group or riding solo its navigation skills waver between non-existent and sub-standard.
Would I upgrade to a 820? Definitely not. But if I were buying my first unit and I had the funds I’d buy the Edge 1000. Although its battery life isn’t as good as either the 810 or 820, it offers proper map-prompted guidance, a larger, properly performing touchscreen and superior on-board route-planning , especially in urban environments.
Pros: good battery life, good tracking, incident detection and group tracking (if they work), lightweight
Cons: terrible touchscreen, poor navigation, undependable on-board route planning